No industry sees as much corruption as construction, and no part of the construction industry sees as much corruption as government projects. Transparency International says bribery is more likely in public works than in 19 other areas of activity (and that includes oil, gas, and mining).
In much of the developing world, 10% to 20% cost over-runs are accepted on public building programs, because it’s assumed money will go missing. And who can blame people for being cynical? The amounts involved are sometimes staggering. Witness for example the $51 billion Russia paid to put on the Sochi Olympics, against an original budget of only $12 billion. Nobody thinks $12 billion climbed to $51 billion purely because of incompetence or someone wanting a better ski jump.
The question is what to do about corruption when it’s so insidious and there’s a lack of basic oversight. One answer is surely better data and tools to track that data–for instance, tools like the app Thomas Disley with his partner Lena Simet are working on. Two graduate students at the New School, in New York, Disley and Simet have developed the M-App–a way to track data around remote public projects, so everyone involved can be held more accountable.
Disley’s frame of reference is a remote road program in a country like Sudan. The government wants to bring communications to rural communities, but its control systems are inadequate. A single manager may be responsible for dozens of sites all over the country and there’s no good way to keep up with every detail of what’s going on.
“Previously, monitoring on these projects has been done on a very ad hoc basis,” he says. “Managers might get out to the projects every six months and everything is paper-based, so it introduces a lot of errors. Because there’s no oversight, it leaves a lot of space and opportunity for corruption to take place.”
The app breaks down a project to a timeline and sets goals to be completed each day. Workers on the ground are then required to enter information against that baseline, for instance what supplies have arrived on-site and what they cost.
“On a daily basis, they will have to record data on the project completion rate, whether it’s on track or whether it’s behind in relation to previously agreed milestones,” Disley says. “Because all the data is timestamped and related to geospatial information, it lets us see exactly where the person is and when.”
If a phone or internet connection is not available immediately, the app stores the data then uploads it the next time it’s in range of a signal.
M-App recently won joint first prize at the New Challenge, a social innovation contest organized by the university. Disley and Simet got $5,000, which they’re putting towards a full pilot in Uganda this summer (the school is chipping in another $2,500). Through a professor, they got in touch with a World Bank unit, which then hooked them up with the Ugandan government, which is now interested in using the tool.
As well as gathering data, the app also visualizes it in pictorial form on the other end. Disley says making the data compelling is a key part of the battle, as officials actually have to be engaged with the problem to do something about it.
“The technology is not so complex. The innovative part is putting it together in a simple way and then putting into a new situation,” he says. “Then we need to communicate it back to people, so they’re interested.”